Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Exodus: Gods and Kings

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Produced by: Peter Chernin
Ridley Scott
Jenno Topping
Michael Schaefer
Mark Huffan

Screenplay by: Adam Cooper
Bill Collage
Jeffrey Caine
Steven Zaillian

Starring: Christian Bale
Joel Edgerton
John Turturro
Aaron Paul
Ben Mendelsohn
Sigourney Weaver
Ben Kingsley

Music by: Alberto Iglesias

Cinematography by: Dariusz Wolski

Editing by: Billy Rich

Studio(s): Chernin Entertainment
Scott Free Productions
Volcano Films

Distributed by: 20th Century Fox

Release date(s): December 12, 2014 (United States)
December 26, 2014 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 150 minutes

Country(s): United States
United Kingdom

Language: English

Production budget: $140 million

Box-office revenue: $253, 200, 795

Alrighty, so, if you've read the introductory paragraphs, you can tell that I am quite busy right now with catching up on as many of the significant movies of 2014 as I can, but I'll spare you the details this time and begin on a different note. I feel that I should pay appropriate homage and acknowledge the one-hundred and fifty-fifth birthday of Anton Chekhov, one of the great masters of Russian literature and writing as a whole. Despite practicing as a medical doctor for much of his life, it didn't stop him from his endeavours as a writer ("Medicine is my lawful wife and writing is my mistress."), scribing some of the masterworks of the stage and an abundance of terrific short stories. A selected Wordsworth collection of his short stories is one of the few books that never leaves my bedside, and I often find myself going towards Chekhov when in a bit of a stick in my own writing. One of a very select few one could claim single-handedly change literature, Chekhov is a joy to read; touching, humorous, frank, entertaining and truthful, it's hard not feel inspired by such mastery of the written form. Hopefully I can live up to the spirit of great writing such as Chekhov someday. Anywho, for all the latest and greatest as regards to the movies, keep your eyes posted!

Today's film up for review is Exodus: Gods And Kings, the latest film from Ridley Scott, and the second big-budgeted biblically-inspired epic backed by a major Hollywood studio this year after Darren Aronofsky's Noah, which unfortunately I will be unable to see before year's end but I am reliably informed is an interesting watch, regardless of what side your opines fall down on. 2014 saw a number of prominent movies with Christianity being a big driving force in their story; not only was there the aforementioned Noah, there was God's Not Dead, a film I didn't like myself but was a surprise sleeper hit (making over $60 million off of a $2 million budget), the Oscar-nominated Polish drama Ida, which was a great film, and, erm, Left Behind. Now, as I said in the preamble to my review for God's Not Dead, even though I'm agnostically inclined, I have absolutely no problem with watching a movie with a Christian message, if it's biblically-inspired or what have you. Although people are loth to mention it in a positive light these days, I think Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ is an extraordinary piece of work, but what I don't like, which was the case with God's Not Dead, is if the message is rammed down your throat, or if the filmmakers' decide to play so every which way but loose with the material that it borders on disrespectful. Here though, we have an elder statesman of cinema in Ridley Scott, a director who I think is among the best for realising a film's world and atmosphere. Although there was controversy about the Anglicised casting, biblical and historical inaccuracies, the negative response from elements of the Muslim community, and the generally negative critical response, despite the weight of all this, I went in with a head to try to enjoy it. Ridley Scott, while his recent work has not been good (Body Of Lies, Prometheus and especially The Counsellor were all unworthy films), this is the same man who made masterpieces with Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator. Anyone who is able to make movies at that level has proven, in my opinion, that they are still capable of reaching it again. So, plot synopsis goes that in 1300 BCE, Moses (Christian Bale) is a general and member of the royal family, preparing to attack the Hittite army with Prince Ramesses (Joel Edgerton). Ramesses' father, the Pharaoh Seti I (John Turturro) tells the two of a prophecy in which one of the two will save the other and become a leader. During the attack on the Hittite, Moses saves Ramesses life, leaving both men troubled. Moses is sent to the city of Pithom to meet with the Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn), who oversees the Hebrew slaves. Encountering the slave Joshua (Aaron Paul), he is appalled at their treatment, and meeting with Nun (Ben Kingsley), he is informed of his true lineage, that he is the child of Hebrew parents and was sent with his sister Miriam (Tara Fitzgerald) to be raised by the Pharaoh's daughter. This is overheard by two Hebrews, who inform Hegep, who in turn informs Ramesses, who has become Pharaoh after Seti's death. Under urgings from Queen Tuya (Sigourney Weaver), he interrogates Miriam, who refuses to reveal her secret, but Moses himself confesses, and is sent into exile, carving out the beginning of the journey of Moses leading the Hebrew's in their titular Exodus. Mouthful I know, but there's that much plot to get through to just set it up (more of which in due time). Got it? Good!

So, starting off with the good about Exodus: Gods And Kings, in much the same way I complimented The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies, I have to give my respect to the achievements in the mise-en-scene, the sheer size and scope of the film. I know CGI plays a part in achieving this, but it doesn't take away from the fact that in some of the film's scenes you do genuinely feel the weight of thousand-strong armies and populaces. Speaking of CGI, among the film's most spectacular scenes involve the supernatural interventions of God. Be it in the form of the Ten Plagues, the rivers of Egypt running with blood, the burning bush or the climactic parting of the Red Sea, the visual effects are imaginatively realised and spectacular to behold. Also, from a design standpoint this is a film that stands out. The sets are not only big, but have an attention to detail which highlights the level of effort that went into the craftsmanship involved in their construction. Looking at some of these you can't help but get the impression almost of a literal construction of the Pyramids by builders for the sake of the film, and it is at times quite breathtaking to see literally thousands of extras occupy these spaces. Also, the costumes are at a level that matches that of the production design. While people bemoan the racial casting of some of the actors, I don't think it can be denied that the garbs with which they adorn do look rather well and appropriate to the setting of the film. Finally, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski shoots a gorgeous looking picture. It's no secret that Ridley Scott has always had a keen eye and a legitimately great visual sensibility, regardless of the quality of some of his work, and here he's got the right guy to shoot it. Wolski's photography not only highlights the hard work done by those involved with the mise-en-scene; in fact, he elevates it. Where his own work truly shines however is in the location shoots. Some crisp, captivating imagery is to be sought during Moses' travels across the sun-soaked deserts as he battles against the elements, sandstorms and all. In these regards, Exodus: Gods And Kings excels, and if we were to look at only these things in terms of judging a movie, it might deemed 'excellent,' in and of itself.

However (the big however), the fact is is that Exodus: Gods And Kings is a poor outing for a colossus with so much potential, and here are the reasons why. Much like that previously mentioned Hobbit film, the last film I reviewed, this is a film with an epic scope and scale which at times a marvel to behold but unfortunately it is also bequeathed with a poor script. In fact, the case is more so with Exodus: Gods And Kings. For starters, the film is home to some preposterous dialogue that could be translated from just about any other period-set picture. It's full of that poxy kind of dialogue that makes guffaw in reaction to it because no one in the real world at any point in time every spoke to each other in conversations like that. Believe it or not (I neither ask nor care that you do or don't), I was actually able to call out the lines in the film before the actors onscreen even spoke them. Furthermore, it is one of those what I call 'nothing' scripts, in that it simply works on a base level, telling a story. While that in itself isn't necessarily a problem, the story of Moses and the Exodus of the Hebrews has been told x-number of times before, and by simply telling the story again, it has nothing new to add that hasn't been done before. Furthermore, similar to what I was referring with the dialogue, for all of it's biblical inspiration and period setting, it's the kind of film whose plot structure could have been moulded to fit just about any setting. For instance, you can find whole plot elements and characters, done in a superior fashion, in Ridley Scott's own Gladiator. Here's a quick example of what I'm talking about, let's re-make Gladiator, hypothetically with this film's cast (I know I'm going off the wall here, but fuck it, this is my blog!): Christian Bale is Maximus, Joel Edgerton is Commodus, John Turturro is Marcus Aurelius, Aaron Paul is Juba, Ben Kingsley is Proximo. Exodus: Gods And Kings also has none of the finer details and undertones which make Gladiator, a film which on the surface is merely a big-budget peplum, such a robust, solid and profoundly resonant picture. Much as I said with regards to Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott, being the seasoned veteran that he is, should have known better. Granted, he has never been much a writer's director, his best quality being as an extraordinary visualist, but after all this time it really is not enough to keep delivering sub-par work this. Once or twice I can excuse, but to constantly disappoint and be under-performing as a filmmaker like this is not excusable. Some people have argued that age has done this to him, something which I thoroughly disagree with. Many directors have made great work well into their seventies and eighties; just ask Clint Eastwood, and in the past you had the likes of John Huston, Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet, and that's just the Yanks! The last great Ridley Scott film I've seen was Black Hawk Down, and that was about thirteen years ago. It's hard to continue to be a Ridley Scott fan sometimes, because, while this is not a bad film, it's still a poor one, and the latest in a line of consistently inferior outing from the director.

At times, it's hard not to be bowled by the scope and scale of Exodus: Gods And Kings. From a design standpoint (production design, costumes, hair/make-up), it's at quite the standard of excellence. With the use of the extras and CGI, you get the opportunity to appreciate the sheer size of what is trying to be achieved here, particularly in the the supernatural interventions of God. Also, all of this shot well and elevated by Dariusz Wolski, whose gorgeous, crisp photography makes for some captivating imagery. However, the film is unfortunately like Peter Jackson's Hobbit film bequeathed with a rubbish script which does a disservice to the material. Dialogue, characters, subplots, structure, the whole shebang here is in the negative. Director Ridley Scott should know better, but time and time again, he seems content churn out inferior works such as this. Not to sound flippant, but let's face it, the Bible is a source which could lead to all sorts of potentially great films and indeed has been in the past. Exodus: Gods And Kings, while not disastrous, is still a poor and flat film that will not be added to that pantheon of greats, and actually it's probably too forgettable to be added to a list of the worst biblical epics. It's just kinda naff!

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 4.5/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - In need (of the toilet!)

P.S. Was anyone out there keeping count of how many times Christian Bale's facial hair changed over the course of the film?

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